Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Goodbye Google in China?

Google may shut down its office and service in China. (New York Times Article)

"Google" has gone from search engine to part of our everyday vocabulary. I would even go so far as to say that the term "google" has replaced more traditional phrases such as "searched for online" and "looked up online." How many times have you said, "What is that? I'll have to google it when I get home," or "Oh, I know all about that; I googled it the other day!" They have expanded from search engine to e-mail domain to blogger to online chatting to photo-sharing database to document sharing and more and have actually been successful in each of these endeavors. Anything that Google produces seems to have great expectations from the community, and people even seek out invitations for their invitation-only Beta programs. Google decided to expand their functions to Chinese-speakers by hiring Kai-Fu Lee, a previous Microsoft employee, who was credited for launching Google.cn in January 2006. The launch of Google.cn was a compromise between the Google and the Chinese government for a more open, but still censored internet and overall access to information. At the time, Google believed the pros to outweigh the cons. (Official Google Blog)

It seems that signs of trouble for Google.cn existed long before the Chinese attack on Google aimed at dissidents that was highlighted in the New York Times today (see first link in this entry). For example, Head of China's Operations Lee left the company back in September 2009 (New York Times Lee Leaves Article). Although his departure from Google was not given a specific reason, it seems likely that he was aware of Google.cn's instability and lack of success in catching up with the Chinese-originated search engine Baidu (Wikipedia Article on Baidu). Perhaps Lee left because he knew that Google would eventually challenge the censorship the Chinese government mandates or perhaps Google is now choosing to challenge the Chinese government because of the lack of Lee's leadership. Then again, there may be no correlation between Lee's departure and the current situation. Regardless, China's inhabitants find themselves in risk of losing access to one of the most popular, if not powerful, web tools and search engines in the world.

All this background information then leads to the core question of this entry: what should Google do? Here are some of the facts:
  • Google knew that they would have to censor their services when they first launched Google.cn.. They decided the pros outweighed the cons, and thus went ahead with the launch.
  • Baidu seems to be the only comparable search engine for China's inhabitants, and is in fact much more successful. It has, however, also been criticized for its censoring by the Chinese government and misuse for targeting dissidents.
  • The decision to question Google's presence in China came from the US offices "without the knowledge or involvement of [their] employees in China"
  • Human rights advocates that use gmail have lost their privacy from unauthorized access into their accounts, but many other email domains have also suffered the same attacks.
Given that Google knew they would have to censor their services before they even launched Google.cn, why are they now challenging the U.S. government? I can see several plausible reasons:
  1. Google has not been as successful as they would have liked; they are, for example, still lagging behind Baidu. With the original leader in launching Google.cn gone and a new leadership in place, it is a good time for Google.cn to push their limits and reevaluate the original plans.
  2. Google has become a powerful web presence in the world. They do not need to be in China, and thus are able to threaten China because they do not feel they have much to lose.
  3. Google has become a powerful web presence and thus they feel there is no way China will let them leave China. Google is bluffing and is confident that China will not call their bluff (or they do not think they have much to lose even if China does call their bluff).
  4. Google is more comfortable with the other options now available to China's inhabitants, and do not feel that their presence is necessary. Whereas, before, Google felt their potential contribution outweighed their lack of freedom from having to censor, they now feel China's inhabitants have other viable options and do not need Google.
  5. Google thought they would be ok with censoring, but when they actually had to do it and then saw their gmail services being used to hurt human rights advocates, they started to feel guilty.
  6. They changed their minds.
These are, of course, not all the possible options, but merely some that crossed my mind right off bat. In my next entry, I will ponder the same question Google must have asked in 2006 and is now asking again in 2010: "to censor but still increase access to knowledge or to stick to morals and not censor but decrease China's inhabitants access to information."

Thursday, January 7, 2010

Increase in Terrorist Plots or Decrease in US Intelligence Effectiveness?

I always envied those that seemed completely up to date with current affairs and in addition had a good grasp of historical events which they could use to better analyze and interpret current affairs and future implications. It has only been a few years since I have been reading the New York Times on a daily basis, supplemented by other news publications, essays, blogs, and even press releases. It may be because of this delayed start that I cannot answer my own question, or it may be that the answer is currently unknown or is classified information. In any case, it seems to me that many are blaming US intelligence and government for "failing" to prevent terrorist acts either due to failure to share information (such as the 9/11 attacks) or failure to accurately analyze the available information (such as the recent, thankfully failed, Northwest Airlines plot by Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab).

Even in this New York Times article, Obama and his officials are reported to have (and even quoted in some situations) said the government failed to see Abdulmutallab's plot despite having the information right in front of them. I am not arguing that they failed; that may or may not be true, but if they said they did, who am I to argue. My question, however, is for this one failure, how many successes do they have? The CIA reports on their website that terrorist tactics will only continue to become more refined and will be targeted towards larger and larger masses of casualties. It seems from this report (and from logic) that the quality of terrorist attacks will increase with time, but what about the quantity? Have the terrorist plots increased? Will they increase in the future?

For the sake of discussion, let's say that the total number of terrorist plots have increased in the recent past. The US could either be doing better, worse, or the same percentage wise in identifying terrorist plots. From the existing criticisms, it seems to me that the implication is that the US is doing worse now than in the recent past. For example, if we were identifying 70% of terrorist plots in 1990, we could be identifying around 60% now, thus increasing criticism. I should also insert a caveat here that perhaps criticism has not increased, perhaps it has decreased or stayed the same. The implication, however, seems to be that we are not as successful as we were before.

Again for the sake of discussion, let's assume that the total number of terrorist plots have increased and the US is not as successful now at identifying terrorist plots as before. Given these assumptions, there seem to be three possible explanations: (1) the US has decreased in their effectiveness, (2) maintained their previous effectiveness, or (3) increased their effectiveness to preidentify terrorist plots. If the former is true, that is no doubt a point for criticism. If the second point is true, you could argue that we should always improve so we have failed. If, however, the latter is true, then the criticisms seem less justified. I understand that nothing can really justify life and death. If we aren't preventing terrorist acts, then we are failing to a certain extent. Is it, however, possible to prevent all terrorist acts? Given the unpredictability of human nature, limitations to large organizations such as the U.S. government and even our intelligence agencies, and increasing globalization of knowledge and technology, can all terrorist acts be prevented?

It seems most logical to assume that not all terrorist acts can be prevented. Once we have accepted that, it is time to set a realistic goal of what we can prevent. An idealist may argue (and I might agree) that even if you have an unrealistic goal, you should set it there and get as close as possible. Even in this situation, however, the smartest decision seems to be to set more realistic, intermediary goals. Perhaps the first course of action for our government should be to analyze the trends in terrorist acts over time and our effectiveness (and inadequacies) in predicting the different types of attacks. I find it hard to believe this hasn't already been done, and perhaps it is even publically available information (please do let me know if you have a reference to the publically available information!), but if it is, it seems that these analyses should be included in articles such as the New York Times articles above. What do you think?

Wednesday, January 6, 2010

How Do You Trust

Humam Khalil Mohammed, the double agent who killed 7 CIA officers and a Jordanian spy in late December (here's the link to one of the New York Times Articles), was a trusted individual both by the Jordanian intelligence service and the United States C.I.A. According to Western officials, Mohammed was not even thoroughly searched prior to entering the CIA base in Afghanistan because of his importance as an informant and the CIA's trust in the Jordanian intelligence service and their subsequent trust in Mohammed.

A world revolving around suspicion and distrust is a sad and lonely one. It is, however, times like these when trust is taken advantage of that sets back all the progress to building up a relationship and easing rigid procedures and overly secure rules. It is an tricky balance between trust and acting smart to avoid being betrayed. It is often the culmination of any given individual's experiences which determines their ability to hold this balance.

It seems to me that while not all is fair in love and war any longer, we still excuse deception, murder, and other otherwise unacceptable malfeasances when it comes to war. The most common justification is that these wrongs are the better of two wrongs and in some ways are justified by the ends. Some may argue that it is not that the ends are justified by the means, but rather that there just is no better option, and so we must try to forget the means and focus on the ends. You can see our society's (and perhaps mankind's) acceptance of deception even in our games, especially those on war. Take the game Risk, for example. The entire game is based on alliances that are made in good faith with the expectation that the alliances will be broken as soon as it becomes beneficial enough for one person to break the alliance so they can win. On some occassions, these alliances last until the end of the game and players declare a mutual victory, but this certainly depends on the two players' personalities.

If you're not a fan of war games or involved with current events, you can think about things in terms of your personal relationships. Friendships and relationships with significant others are based on trust. Some individuals are quick to trust and may be called naive while others have an iron clad gate to protect themselves. Often, those with tighter gates have had negative experiences where they have tried to trust and been betrayed, only reaffirming that trust is a bad idea. These individuals often have difficulty becoming close to others as at a certain point, that gate gets in the way and if they start to feel they can trust someone, their experiences tell them they are just getting soft and have merely met an master of deception. The majority of individuals are probably somewhere in the middle where their trust must be earned through good times and bad, but they are not paranoid of betrayal.

Whether you frame trust in the context of war, games, or relationships, it seems that in an ideal world, complete trust is the best option. In the world we live in, however, is that even possible? If it is possible, is it the best option? Thinking about your own personal life, can you ever trust another individual completely? Or does everyone have a gate, merely of different strengths and transparencies. Even if you can trust an individual completely, should you? In that situation it may come down to luck of who you encounter in your life. There are definitely those that will take advantage of someone that is quick to trust, and Mohammed proved, there are even those that will take advantage of someone that is capable of gaining trust with. So where do you draw the line personally? How do you decide who to trust and to what degree? How do you decide when to suppress your suspicions and paranoias no matter how logical they seem to be? Once you make this decision, how does it translate over to groups of individuals? The same questions apply for all types of groups. Companies must decide who to trust with their secrets, governments must decide who trust with their national security, and military leaders must decide who to trust is on their side.

The case with Mohammed is an especially interesting one because he is not just a secret agent, but a double agent. The C.I.A. and the Jordanian intelligence service wanted Mohammed, and in fact may have trusted him more, because he said (and probably showed through his actions) he was willing to deceive Al Qaeda by posing as a foreign jihadi. The C.I.A. itself, and surely any other intelligence service, revolves around secret agents and double agents. When you are dealing with individuals that deceive people as their career - that have the skills, minds, and brains to deceive - how can you trust them? You may have even trained them yourself to deceive, so how do you trust that they aren't deceiving you?

Especially in our current war, long term deception is a recurring event. Hasan at Fort Hood, the 9/11 suicide hijackers, Mohammed, they were all long term deceivers that built up trust with the people around them before turning on them. In our personal lives, adultery and talking behind people's backs are now everyday events. They are looked down upon in theory, but rarely are people punished or have consequences for their actions. In a world like this, it is even more important to trust and to have faith in the people around you. We cannot let suspicion overtake our minds, or we will truly be living in a lonely world. How do you find that balance?

Portuguese Restaurant Owners: The Best Housing Guides for Tourists!

Who would have guessed that local restaurant owners in Portugal are cooks by day and housing guides by night? Robert, my travel companion, and I were traveling to Sintra in the central east side of Portugal (almost directly east of Lisbon), but weren't sure whether we would stay the night there or travel south to a small fishing village for the night. We decided to play it by ear and were advised by the local workers at the hostel that we should ask one of the restaurant owners where to stay. We were skeptical and so sought out the obvious hostels and guidebook recommendations once we committed to staying in Sintra for the night (9pm the night of).

To our dismay, every place we went was either fully booked or out of our price range. One of the hotel receptionists was kind enough to let us use the hotel's computer to search for hostels and use their phone, but every affordable lodging that was listed was fully booked! We finally gave up to the grumbling of our stomachs and got a recommendation from the receptionist for a local restaurant with authentic Portuguese cooking. She noted, too, that the owner was exceptionally kind and would be willing to help us find housing.

We wandered into Ristorante Tulhas and was met by smiling faces. Despite it being quite late and the streets empty, the restaurant was half full. We were seated and while waiting to order, made note of the two individuals that seemed like the owners. One seemed more friendly with the customers than the other, so we waited for him, but he seemed to be responsible for the other half of the restaurant! Finally we asked the other gentleman who immediately referred us to his friend who turned out to be the owner. Antonio immediately became concerned that we hadn't found housing this late in the night and started thinking of places he could call to obtain housing for us. "I have a few friends," he said in very good English, "I will call around to my friends that have houses and see if they have room tonight. But it is so late... I hope they have something."

A few moments later, Antonio brought our dinner with a concerned face. "It is so late that everyone is full or sleeping. One friend has a room, but he says you need to be there in 15 minutes or the reception desk will close. But it will take you 15 minutes just to get there and you just got your dinner. It would be a shame for you to leave. I will continue calling around." We ate our dinner unconcerned, having slept in a bus station a few days before, we knew we would get through the night somehow, and after dessert we found ourselves to be alone in the restaurant with Antonio and two Australian girls that were visiting Sintra over the weekend from London where they were currently working (future post on why Australians are everywhere).  Antonio brought over a bottle of one of his favorite ports in the restaurant bar and poured himself and each of us a glass on him for being his last customers. He sat with us and we talked about the differences in cuisine and traveling experiences. He then turned to Robert and myself and said, "Unfortunately I have not been successful at finding you a place to stay. I do have a small place of my own with lots of empty rooms. I have been thinking about opening up a hostel, but have not done anything with it. It is not much, but you are most welcome."

Robert and I said yes after a quick look at each other as the gentleman seemed so kind and between the two of us, we felt safe. He invited the two Australian girls to come with us for a drink of port at his home with his wife, but they had to go home, so we headed over with him which was only a few minutes away. His Portuguese wife and 7 year old granddaughter that was visiting for the week greeted us at the door. He showed us our room in the basement which had 4 other rooms, a private bathroom, kitchen, and balcony. It was a mansion! He gave us the entire basement to ourselves and even a key to the side door. There was yogurt, fruit, meats, bottles of water, homemade rice pudding, and more in the refridgerator which he welcomed us to and then invited us upstairs to the main part of the house for port. They insisted that we try the rice pudding his wife had prepared for a dinner party the next day which they insisted we come to. Unfortuantely, we had a tight schedule to keep, but we both still regret that we weren't able to join them. Antonio then pulled out some nuts and his favorite 1989 vintage port. Way out of our budget, it was truly delicious, and he couldn't offer us enough. We talked about the difficulty of learning languages, what it was like to live in Portugal versus the United States, the troubles of being in the restaurant business and never having a day off, and his granddaughter's education (especially of English) in the Portuguese school system.

After a good night's sleep, we explored the palaces that were a 10 minute walk from Antonio's home and returned back to say goodbye. We paid 50 Euros, the same price we had been paying at hostels, and were given fruit and bottles of water for the train and warm hugs. Antonio had already left for the restaurant, so we thanked his wife and headed over to the restaurant to say goodbye. The restaurant was bustling even for lunch, but Antonio insisted on taking a picture with us by the beautiful tile painting of his restaurant on one of his walls. We gave him tips on how he could start an official lodging business in either his home or one of his other two properties in Sintra, and gathered his information so that we could distribute it to the other tourists staying at our hostel in Lisbon.

Robert and I learned towards the end of our trip how wonderful it could be to turn to locals for housing. Granted, we got very lucky and not every situation would turn out the same way. If I had been traveling alone as a single female, I probably would not have stayed in a stranger's home no matter how nice they seemed, but given the situation, we definitely wished we had thought to do that earlier. For the same price as a hostel, we made a friend, had a chance to stay in a beautiful, historical home, tried local foods, had interesting discussions, tried a vintage port, and even got snacks for the train!

If anyone visits Portugal, I highly recommend contacting Antonio about a place to stay (you can say you heard about him from my blog!) or just to visit his restaurant. Ristorante Tulhas in Rua Gil Vicente, 4-6, Sintra 2710-568, Portugal, Phone Number +351 21 923 23 78. I do have his personal email so let me know if you're interested and would prefer email and I'd be happy to introduce you!

Monday, January 4, 2010

Traveling for Pleasure versus Traveling for Work

I recently took a one week vacation to Portugal with the sole intention of spending quality time in a new place with a special person in my life. This was the first time in years that I had left the country with the sole purpose of having fun rather than to work on either a photojournalism assignment or development project. Even as I began planning for the trip, I realized that in addition to having a different purpose and therefore different logistical planning, it was a completely different personal experience. Both my travel companion and I were used to traveling on a slim budget and experiencing the country more from a local's point of view, but of course we wanted to see the main tourist attractions and taste the local foods.

The first difference I saw was the use of a guide book. I didn't even think of getting a guide book, because I had no need for it when I was traveling on task, but my companion bought the Rick Steve's in Portugal and we both literally and figuratively wore it thin. He had originally aimed to purchase the Lonely Planet copy, but ended up with Rick Steves because LP was sold out. We found the Rick Steve's quite good in its recommendations, but we did find several mistakes in prices and hours of operation despite the book being published only a few months prior to our travels. We used a combination of the guidebook and recommendations from locals to plan what and where we were going to eat and what and when we were going to see sights. It was nice to see the country's treasures and to know in advance the types of food that they're known for so that I wouldn't find out later and regret not trying it, but it was also much more hurried because we had so much that we wanted to do and see.

In contrast, when I travel for work, there is no guidebook. I find a place to stay and get my initial transportation and then rely on the locals that I'm working with to point me to food to try. In addition, because I'm usually working everyday with an occasional day off, I tend to stay in one part of the country going from my housing to work and back instead of traveling around seeing the different sights and tasting the different foods that the country is famous for. Through this form of travel, I get a better insight into what life is like for a local, although I am limited to the views of the economic and social classes that the locals I am working with are in.

For example, when I was living with Indian-Tanzanians in Tanzania, my experiences were completely different than if I had lived with black Tanzanians. Due to their society, the Indians tend to travel mostly by car and are rarely seen walking around on the streets. They tend to own the stores and send their children to private schools and have fairly stable internet connectiosn as well as more of a fusion diet. Alternatively, living with one of the political ministers in Uganda, he was a black Ugandan, but was a politician and thus of a higher socioeconomic class, drinking Amarula after dinner every night with hot water plumbing inside the house and fluffy beds. Obviously, I did not get a well rounded view of what life is like for the individuals that I hope to empower and help help themselves rise out of poverty. (A future post will center around doing what it takes to really understand the people that are in the most need and balancing that with your own safety and health.)

Traveling with a guidebook could have given us only a tourist's view of Portugal, but because of our unique interests, my companion and I went out of our way to get to know locals, get their input on places to stay, visit, and eat regardless of its popularity with tourists, and learn about their lives. As we were not limited to one location for work, we were able to meet a large variety of locals and even got a chance to stay with a local in Sintra (a town that came straight out of a fairy tale) in his beautiful home (more on this later). Due to a tight itinerary, however, we weren't able to spend as much time with the interesting people that we met. In addition, seeking out tourist attractions did put us in contact with other tourists which is always an interesting experience of its own.

Another main difference was housing. Traveling for work, I found one place to live and made that my headquarters during the entire time I was working in that area. Often I tried to find host families or longer term housing such as campgrounds, but traveling for pleasure and especially as a couple, we looked mainly for hostels a day before or the day of entering a certain town. It was only when all the housing in Sintra was occupied when we went to a restaurant and asked the owner for a place to stay and he offered us his "modest" home which turned out to be a beautiful home with a great view and perfect location.

A big pro for both types of travel was the food. In the case of traveling for pleasure, I had a chance to try foods that were popular in many different regions of the country and for various socioeconomic classes. In the case of traveling for work, I spent much more time with locals, so I had a chance to regularly eat home cooked food and also learn their unique ways of preparing food. In both types of traveling, one of my favorite things to do is try the street food (I only had digestive trouble with street food in India) and go to the grocery stores to see what is available and what the locals buy. Traveling to Ecuador for work, I went to the grocery store and bought one of each fruit I had never seen before to try. Traveling to Portugal, we bought the bread, cheese, meats, and snacks that the locals shopping at the store were buying and had a picnic in one of the castles.

Transportation was of course different because in one case we were traveling around the country and in another I was traveling to and from work in a much smaller area. In the former, we took the train, bus, local transportation, and more, whereas in the latter I stuck mostly to walking and the local public transportation.

There are many other differences as well, but in the end it seems that it is a combination of your purpose (and therefore your mindset) and breadth versus depth that make your personal experiences differ so greatly. Traveling for pleasure may give you more exposure to history, culture, other travelers (with fascinating stories of their own) and the country as whole, but traveling for work may give you a deeper insight into what life is really like in the country including food, work, transportation, and relationships between locals. Of course the two types of travel may be much more similar if the travel for pleasure takes place over a much longer period of time. Still, it seems that most that travel for pleasure tend to spend the majority of their time with other travelers rather than with locals, and in touristy or expatriat areas rather than in local hangouts or work places. Then the dilemma arises: given a limited amount of time and resources, what type of travel should I do?